Arundhati Nag Interview
Veteran actress Arundhati Nag is all set to perform in QTP's production of Bertolt Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN at the NCPA this weekend. The production is part of the Aadyam (a theatre initiative by the Aditya Birla group) edition this year. She quotes a passage from Nietzsche's Thus spoke Zarathustra, which she appears to embody. "Thoughts are not your experiences, they are an echo and after-affect of your experiences: as when your room trembles when a carriage goes past. I however am sitting in the carriage, and often I am the carriage itself." From being involved in the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) at a young age, to building her theatre Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, to receiving the Padma Shri award, Arundhati Nag's spirit and career arc appear as indomitable as the "Mother Courage" she will play. Her dignity, compassion, humor and ease are demonstrative of a person who is content with a life lived richly.

 By Manvi Ranghar

Arundhati Nag

Manvi Ranghar (MR): How are you feeling today?

(Arundhati had fallen ill and was in the hospital until last Friday)

Arundhati Nag (AN): Better! Much better. I fell ill at the right time. Had it happened now, I don't know what would have happened. Not falling ill would have given me one more week of rehearsal, more energy. I could have maybe done more. But I like the way life makes fun of you - makes you feel so small.

: You are all set to perform in Bertolt Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. This is your third outing with the play. You first acted in it in the Hindi adaptation ZEENATH KE HATIYAR at the age of seventeen. You then put up a production in 1991, on the occasion of your husband Shankar Nag's first death anniversary. The play has deep emotional and historical context for you, has it not?

AN: There is serendipity and a nice rounding off. I am sixty-one and by now I've had the pick of the roles. This is another chance to explore Mother Courage. When I played her in 1991, twenty-six years ago, we were all very weak, very delicate. The whole team was weak, because we had lost a friend (referring to Shankar Nag). The play became something that brought us together emotionally. Our reason for being on this planet was theatre. This play became a huge reason for us to recover, to get our strength back. As a team it was great; as therapy it was great. We looked forward, not back. The very last conversation Shankar and I had was about doing MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. Now twenty-six years later I feel I'm a tad older, maybe? There is a certain maturity that has come into it. Time has healed a lot of the pain. It is a good opportunity now to work with youngsters who have a new way of looking at the play. Amazingly, I never did an English play while I was in Bombay. This is my first English play here. So it is good timing. It is a good space. Imagine you have a role, an actor would give her right arm and leg for? Everything is taken care of, including my stay in Girish Karnad's apartment that has a sea view!

MR: And what is the essence of this character to you?

AN: She's a saga, an indomitable spirit. It is about how she never learns, how we never learn. She loses her children, all three of them to the war and she still doesn't know how to do anything else. So she lives out the war and joins it again. All of us are complicit in a war somewhere. We have communications working, everything we need, there is money available and yet there is misery. So I think the play is a huge comment on our lives even today. It is about us pretending there is nothing wrong; sab theek hai. But the play also says that wherever there is a little bit of life, it will get to its feet, somehow. I hope we can deliver even a percentage of this thought because it is such a big statement; a verdict on mankind, on human behavior. We are a group of thirteen actors creating this world, trying to keep a sense of that fragility, and of Mother Courage's indomitable spirit. That is the balance. As an actor it is exhausting! It is a huge role. There is no respite. I really see Mother Courage as a canvas. She is the canvas against which all other very fine characters are painted.

MR: Quasar's version of the play has its own context?

AN: I like what Quasar (Thakore Padamsee) is doing. He looks at it as an ensemble that is going to present something. It zeros in on a community, say like in the Asterix comics, the Gaul community. That was the first book he (Quasar) gave us. Between us thirteen actors, we create a world that is placed sometime in the future, after much has happened in this world. Communications have been blown to smithereens, so it is a world that had mobile phones but does not have them anymore. There is nothing, so we are back to basic human greed again. It is a nice way of giving it to us as actors. There was no "Acha yeh kyon hai? Yeh kyon nahi hai?" Joh gaya woh gaya, get on with it. There are not too many things to be asked - which is a nice way of placing this very universal human predicament on stage.

MR: Do you remember your first time on stage?

AN: Hmm... (with laughter), it was a dance. A Rajasthani dance in which I was made into a boy and I was not happy at all. Mustache and all! It is because I was tall. It was in Delhi. I still remember the song.

MR: How did theatre begin for you?

AN: Having Marathi roots, we were shown a lot of theatre. Behind our house in Delhi we had a maidan. You had the Ramleela there every year and a Sardarji used to play Sita. There was this suspension of disbelief. You were not conscious that a Sardarji was Sita. She had long hair, which was good enough. Then I came to Bombay, and began school. By the time I was in the VIII standard, I was into elocution and mono acting. After BISHOP'S CANDLESTICKS, I did OTHELLO and played Desdemona. That sense of becoming someone had come by then. Then it was watching lots of Marathi plays, watching good actors. We were taken once a month to watch a play religiously. Then the play would be discussed at home. Television wasn't there so theatre was the only high.

Later in college, I read a notice on the board that said 'Those who want to act in Hindi play come to room so-and-so'. Since I was from Delhi my Hindi was good. So I landed up. And they said kuch karo. Toh kuch kiya! I got chosen. It was a small role. I was quite wild-eyed with wild friends then. We used to go to Bandstand, drink Coca-Cola and go actually wild in those days! Then I met this friend of mine, who said 'Maine toh IPTA join kiya hai. Bade bade log aate hai'. I went to a rehearsal with him with my comic book, two chotis and naughty boys' shoes, all of sixteen years old. Shama Zaidi said, "You, girl with the pig tails, want to act in a play?" So I said, "If you teach me I'll act." And I got cast in the play.

Arundhati Nag

MR: What was IPTA like?

AN: It was not really struggling. I did not even know that theatre rehearsals like these existed. I was around elderly people who had made theatre their life, and who had an ideology. To meet people who have an ideology at the age of sixteen is a huge thing. These were people who had made a choice. They were all left of centre; there was a very defined communist movement in India and the world at that time. IPTA really was a movement - a movement that took theatre and the message to the farmers. It had been an anti-establishment, anti-British movement. Imagine being sixteen and suddenly entering into what you thought was some fun thing, but the people there were there for a reason. That was huge. Suddenly all this caste and community...nothing mattered. Here you had mixed marriages and it did not matter. A lot happened there. Then I was picked up by commercial theatre being slightly good-looking, slightly talented. When you got picked up, you got paid. That was another high. Then I did television. I began to be recognized when I travelled by train. Those were the beginnings, the rumblings of what was to be. I wouldn't trade that for anything else.

: Afterwards you moved to Bangalore?

AN: I think I left Bombay at the right time. I was twenty-three. I had already done commercial plays. I didn't need the money and life was a party. Shankar sent me this message from Bangalore saying, "Please help me set up a theatre group here. I'll go mad if I don't do theatre here." So I went to Bangalore. But I think it is very important what kind of theatre comes to you and what kind of theatre you are actually able to do. Sometimes you get blown away with commitments or the compulsion of having to do whatever comes your way because you want the money or the limelight. Before those things happened to me I had moved out of Bombay.

It was difficult of course. Bangalore was not a piece of cake. The first year was hard. I had no friends and I did not know the language or the city. We were doing one show a month in Bangalore while I had done twenty shows a month in Bombay. That period of time was all about finding my own magic, connections, my reason to be on this planet. "Is it theatre? Is it love? Or is it something else? Who are you?" - those were the kind of questions I faced.

Marriage is the largest migration on this planet. Women are the largest migrants. I was there for love but nothing else! Shankar was a fantastic companion. He always said, "You go back to Bombay, do your thing." But I knew that long distance would not work.

: Is the stage a vulnerable place for you?

AN: It is very powerful. That is the high. In film you are vulnerable. You don't know what the director will keep and what will be cut out. In that director's medium you are cut to size. In theatre there is space to play, that's what the word play is all about. You can do all these different measures because your audience is new every time. So every show is different because your audience is giving you different vibes. It is like cooking! For me, it is not a vulnerable space. This (rehearsal) is the vulnerable period; this period before the play. It is like before the exams...what I do now...woh record hoga ki nahi hoga? Might I just miss the bus? The stage is where you deliver and where you are the medium. You have to be extremely conscious and responsible. That is why we have to take care of our bodies. I wish I could have kept my body in better shape. I am not trained at all. I've never gone to the National School of Drama or any drama school. My school has been my theatre. I do wish I had gone for some kind of training. Maybe I would have been better, no?

MR: Better than you are?

AN: Yes! That's because there is always something in you that you don't recognise. Always something new you can latch onto. A particular note and then you can explore that note. My body is limited; I have only these many ways of doing things. How do I explore a certain gesture for a certain role? Capture it? Digest it completely to make it my own?

: Coming to your theatre Ranga has it shaped since its inception? Going ahead, what plans do you have for the theatre?

AN: My beautiful baby! It is a joy. Ranga Shankara is like a baby, even more than my biological baby. Of course my daughter is my joy and all that but I am done teaching her a sense of right from wrong. This is a baby that will never grow, that will always need good human beings to take care of it. These are very precious spaces. Especially Ranga Shankara. It is not a commercial "what's-in-it-for-me" module. What it does is, it enables. It is a delicate space and therefore not for politics, religion, or fame. You do not become famous when you perform at Ranga Shankara, you do not earn money only. We are of course subsidised by some corporates. It is their duty. Every city and town deserves a space like this, and it is totally inspired by Prithvi - by Jennifer's (Jennifer Kapoor) Prithvi and her dreams. I was there. I was among the first people who performed at Prithvi theatre. We were there from the time when Jennifer said 'pay hundred rupees rent and one rupee per ticket'. What she did to Bombay theatre is what I took with me to Bangalore.

I am chaabi maroing some friends to have theatres (like these) in cities like Ahmedabad, Bhubaneswar...See it is a process. You have to get excited, then it has to become a problem that you need to resolve, and because we are theatre people, the desire was burning bright. All we need is to put a place like Prithvi somewhere, and at least some movement will begin. At Ranga Shankara, my friend Surendranath has been in the driving seat for the last five years. He is doing fantastic programmes that move it inward. We are not Bangalore-centric anymore; we are taking good theatre to the districts, galvanising other theatre groups. So Suri (Surendranath) has his eyes on development.

MR: You've done everything from Ibsen to Shakespeare to Girish Karnad. Is there anything that you were challenged by?

AN: I always felt very challenged about playing a foreigner. I am trapped in a very Indian looking body. Playing an American woman in Woody Allen's DON'T DRINK THE WATER or an American singer in Tom Stoppard's ROUGH CROSSING, I felt out of place, like I was masquerading. It was difficult for me to actually believe 'I am'. Therefore I have been very comfortable doing Indian language theatre. Though I think this play sets me at a great level of comfort, because Quasar has not thrust on anybody a type of English to speak. He has really just set everyone free. We all speak different types of English in the play. Quasar says, "I do not care, and as long as you feel it, I am okay. You do not have to try to imitate some English theatre diction." This is a very liberating moment and I think Indian English theatre is changing. It is a nice time.

: You have had a lifelong romance with theatre. How does it feel after all this time?

AN: Simple! Nothing else.

: It has been a good relationship then?

AN: It is the only thing I have not cheated on. Deep inside, never doubted it, never held back, never cheated. So I think it has been one of my purest relationships, similar to a relationship with god. I am not a frightfully religious person, so, yahi hoga. Religion must be this. I am blessed. People spend a lifetime trying to find out 'mere koh kya karna hai?" And I think I just gave in to theatre. I did not even recognise it then. It came and one was giving and one was taking, flowing with the tide, and not looking at anything else. It was always theatre that created the next thing; it was the next straw to hang onto, the next pillar to clutch, the next building to build. Everything has happened here. The man I chose to live with and then marry was from the theatre. After he went I did a play in his memory. Then I sorted my shit out and built a theatre. I have been like a bull with its head down, ploughing the field; the bull does not know how much it has ploughed. I have lived a rich life. So special, and so many special people I met along the way. Everybody you meet is no ordinary person.

: What are the little, day-to-day things that make you happy of late?

AN: In my line of vision I have Kavya, my daughter on the one side, and Ranga Shankara on the other. The happiness? Cooking. I've always loved cooking. Painting. I wanted to be a painter before I became an actor. I like good music. Making things happen if I can. That's it. Simple things. Being left alone, or with friends, parties, my dog, and my garden. I do not have an agenda. Life is what it is.

*Manvi Ranghar is an actor, writer and environmentalist from Mumbai. She studied Literature and values freedom.

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